Crist to backers: I’m independent

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist, a pariah in the Republican Party that has been vital to his success, will launch a risky political career today as a “people’s candidate’’ for the U.S. Senate with no party affiliation.

Crist began telling campaign donors of his decision Wednesday, which he will announce at 5 p.m. at Straub Park in downtown St. Petersburg, surrounded by family members, friends, local supporters and an army of media personnel. It will be an extraordinary event in Florida’s colorful political history, as a one-term governor who blew a 30-point lead in the Republican Senate primary is forced to run an unconventional race.

“I think the people are concerned about the future, and they’re interested in having people who put them first, instead of politics,” Crist said. “I think that’s where they are.”

The announcement site in Crist’s hometown is in his emotional comfort zone. But it allows him to present himself as an outsider who’s critical of the way his fellow Republicans are running things in Tallahassee, even though he has been a fixture in the capital for 16 years, as a state senator, commissioner of education, attorney general and governor.

“I don’t think it comes as a surprise to a lot of people,” said Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, the House majority leader. “Charlie Crist has never been loyal to the Republican Party. All he has ever cared about is his own personal success and his own personal agenda.”

Said state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who endorsed Crist a year ago: “If he leaves the Republican party, he has left public office. ... I think it says more about the political opportunism of the candidate than it does about the party.”

Crist, expected to remain a registered Republican, will be forced to rebuild a campaign without the logistical and financial support of the Republican Party. He’ll have to hire a new manager, staff and consultants for the three-way race with Republican Marco Rubio and likely Democratic nominee Kendrick Meek, and he is sure to be pilloried by Republicans as a political opportunist with one goal: to salvage his career.

The state party showed signs Wednesday night of disowning Crist by mostly scrubbing him from its website.

Rubio’s campaign reacted to news of Crist’s decision by saying, “If that is the case, tomorrow will be the best day of Charlie Crist’s new campaign.”

At the same time, Crist will have the bully pulpit of governor all year and the potential to redefine the race through his one-on-one campaigning skills, high name recognition and image as a centrist during a period of political turbulence. “If anybody can do it, he can,” said Rep. Ron Saunders, a Key West Democrat. “He’s got a lot of cross-over support. He may be catching the anti-government wave at the right moment.”

Crist, who prides himself on listening to the people, polled the issue and he liked what he saw. In a three-way race, Crist is about dead even with Rubio, Meek in third.

A kick-off fundraiser is tentatively scheduled this weekend in Miami, where Crist’s wife Carole owns a home.

Crist’s go-for-broke strategy is remarkable on several levels. A politician who loathes making political enemies, he’s willing to sever ties with countless Republican allies to run as a third option. Some Republicans who have been loyal to him won’t be at Straub Park, such as former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and Pinellas Republican State Committeewoman Nancy Riley.

“Even though I’m a strong supporter of him, I’m a stronger Republican,” Riley said. “I asked him to please stay and run as a Republican, that he’s one of the finest Republicans that I know, that he has been a Republican and has great conservative credentials (but) I am a Republican first.”

However, Paul Sharff of Bradenton said he will resign today from his position on the Florida Republican Executive Committee in order to support Crist.

“My big issue is children, and he’s been nothing but a champion for education.”

Sharff said Crist’s veto of Senate Bill 6, a controversial education bill, that hurt him politically with many Republicans.

Sharff said he has been a supporter of Crist since he was the state education commission.

“Sometimes you have to put politics aside and put people first,” Sharff said, referring to governor’s decision to run as an independent.

“It would be good for Florida to have him as our senator in Washington.”

Also sticking with Crist — at least for now — is state Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Galvano said Thursday he “endorsed Gov. Crist and will continue to endorse him and will wait until tomorrow to see what happens.”

Greg Truax, Crist’s Hillsborough County campaign chairman, is volunteering to organize the event in St. Petersburg and said he’ll support Crist. “I’ve always supported Charlie Crist, and I always will,” Truax said. “We’ll see a lot of people from the community, longtime supporters, new supporters, family and friends.”

Crist continues to ride a wave of populist support for his veto of a teacher merit pay bill, Senate Bill 6. The Pinellas and Hillsborough teachers’ unions both say they will have members at the announcement. Pinellas’ Robin Haines said at least 15 teachers will be standing on stage with him.

“Senate Bill 6 gave him a platform. It gave him some leverage,” said James Harris, a Democratic strategist who helped Crist in his race for governor in 2006. “The governor showed he was his own man.”

Harris said Crist faces the challenge of re-constructing a new political base while facing fundraising challenges and serving out his term as governor. “He’s going to have to set up an entire apparatus for himself,” Harris said.

Crist refused to say whether, as an unaffiliated Senate candidate, he would remain a member of the Republican Governors Association (which donated $100,000 to his 2006 effort).